The simple fact is this: when any party talks about marriage equality it is playing cheap politics with the lives of queer people.
These lives are the plaything of a Labor Party that resolves to support same-sex marriage, but then decides its members would not be bound in a vote on the issue.
The endorsement of a conscience vote at the 2011 national conference, on this issue and this issue alone, was a shell game rigged against same-sex couples. When Bill Shorten borrows the dignity of gay couples, when he emotes for their children, he does so in the shadow of this dishonesty.
It was cheap politics again when a bill supporting same-sex marriage was defeated in 2012. Liberal and Labor politicians conspired in its failure. Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard both voted against it. Shorten, to his credit, voted for.
It was cheap politics when Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite on the issue, a means of delaying resolution. It was politics again when Turnbull allowed it to be a condition of his leadership.
This was the same Turnbull who told his electorate he supported marriage equality, who last year said he “supported for a long time a free vote on this issue … consistent with Liberal Party tradition”.
It was cheap politics when George Brandis and Turnbull refused to disclose the question that would frame such a plebiscite. And it was cheap politics when Shorten, having supported a plebiscite, decided to vote against it.
It was cheap politics when Richard Di Natale used youth suicide to make a point about the plebiscite, when he said: “We know that if a plebiscite is to go ahead that young people are at risk … that in fact we will most likely see young people take their lives if this plebiscite goes ahead.”
It was cheap politics when Shorten bemoaned the “public campaign of vilification” a plebiscite on same-sex marriage would bring. It was cheap politics because it was the fault of his party and of the Coalition that the issue remained unsettled, that the question remained open for couples and families to become mortars in war over equality. Politicians saying they want to protect queer families – from a campaign of hate, from a national debate on their legitimacy – do so pretending they do not have the power simply to legislate for equality, to end this farce.
When John Howard modified the Marriage Act to exclude same-sex unions, he did so without fuss. It took less than an hour between his announcing the amendments and their being introduced to the house. Labor supported this legislated intolerance. With a minimum of argument, the bill passed.
These past five years of fudging and compromise, of conscience votes and platform tricks, politicians have conspired to make same-sex marriage an issue it never should have been. The public supports it. The parliament emboldens elected members to legislate for it.
But they will not. They will not because there is a useful politics to be played with the lives of queer people, a politics of desperate hope on one side and cruel fear on the other.
The plebiscite is now dead. It was never more than a gutless distraction. It should not be mourned, but nor should it have been needed.
There are a number of things that politicians might now do. The best of which would be their jobs.
In an email to supporters this week, the Australian Christian Lobby gloated about the defeat: “We have a plan to win the marriage debate and yesterday Bill Shorten played an important and helpful role in that plan.”
And again: “Make no mistake, Bill Shorten is playing politics with this issue. Yet he has unwittingly given our side of the debate the gift of time.”
The lobby will never win this debate. The time they talk of is space before the inevitable. But it is time in which queer families will be forced to live a politics they never chose, a politics forced on them because of who they are and what in this acrid phoney war they represent. If there were any decency in our politics, the parliament would act to save them from that.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "Political indecency".
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